As our plane approached the airport in Guatemala City, Amanda Paniagua, MedShare’s Shipments Manager, leans over and opens the window shade. As she looked out, she said, “look, we are in another country!” Indeed, we were. Once again a MedShare team was on its way to learn about our medical aid recipients and explore with them how we can best partner to improve healthcare for those in most need.
Along with Amanda are myself, Josh Kravitz, COO, and Terry Monday, Volunteer Manager for MedShare’s Western Region. Our mission on this trip was to dive into the Guatemalan medical community to learn just who will be our best partner hospitals over the next year or two and truly understand their unique needs. Without a doubt, we prepared to leave this wonderful country with a better understanding that will lead to even higher quality medical aid shipments.
Since 2000, MedShare has shipped twenty-seven containers of medical aid and supplied countless MedTeams helping the Guatemalan people. We had a lot of options to start from, but chose to visit with two of our most trusted corporate partners, Dole and Kimberly-Clark. In the last few years, Dole has provided shipping for seven 40-foot containers on their vessels. While none have been to Guatemala, we were eager to learn how they are working to improve healthcare for the people here. As expected, they are working to improve lives in this important banana-growing region and are starting some new projects that MedShare hopes to help with.
It was in 2001 that MedShare sent our first container with Kimberly-Clark to Guatemala and we were excited to see the results of our numerous containers since. We started with a visit to the Hospital Materno Infantil, where we were overjoyed to see a facility that provided not only high level care, but paying great respect to the families they served. Though the hospital may have been low on resources, they stretched themselves as far as they could while continuing to honor their patients with services that would satisfy any North American. Most impressive was their ability to build a sterilization capability with similar capacity of a US hospital. Following several visits to small clinics, we ended the first day by seeking some advice from the nuns at the Central American headquarters for the Daughters of Charity, as introduced to us by Accession Healthcare. In MedShare’s efforts to only work with the most honest and professional partners, we must seek advice from those who truly know local needs.
The following day, we met with Food for the Poor and their long time partner, the Knights of Malta. It goes without saying how impressed we were that together these two organizations partner to accept and distribute an average of two containers of medical and food aid every day. MedShare was proud to most recently have shipped a container of hospital beds from our Western Region in aid of their mission. Our first hospital stop was to visit their recipients at the National Hospital in Antigua, and we were shocked to see moldy ceilings, rusty beds and crumbling walls. The desperate situation became overwhelmingly real when we saw premature babies being warmed by nothing more than a floor lamp with an incandescent light bulb; a similar set-up to what caused an infant’s finger to be burned off at one of our recipient hospitals years earlier. Despite challenging circumstances, this hospital has amazingly set up Guatemala’s first breast milk bank so babies in crisis can still benefit from this simple, but fortifying nutrition. We finished this day by visiting the world famous Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro that conducts the highest quality services for the poor from orthopedic surgeries to caring for the mentally disabled.
It was difficult to imagine we could see anything more heartbreaking or inspiring, but the trip went on. Wednesday began with a visit to the national hospital in Solola. This government hospital that serves primarily an indigenous and extremely poor population struggles to survive on an adequate budget that leaves them no choice but to operate with only one nurse for every 15 patients. We were shown intermediate care units with almost no working monitors, an operating room filled with broken equipment and a patient ward that reeked of urine and was filled with ancient mattresses on rusted beds. Again, the facility persevered and managed to establish a blood bank where patients’ families could donate blood. This day ended on an extraordinary note with a visit to Dr. Louis Flores who is using his 401K money to build a clinic for one of the poorest villages on Lake Atitlan. This fascinating doctor, who recently retired to his native Guatemala after decades with the Mayo Clinic, will spend his “leisure” years giving nearly free care to one of the most medically under-resourced communities in the country. Then, just stay busy, Dr. Flores also hopes to teach painting to villagers on the weekend.
The trip concluded with an energizing stop at the Hospilito Atitlan in Santiago de Guatemala with the extraordinary mission of providing for the preventative, maternal and emergency health needs of the Lake Atitlan’s indigenous population. Through the interesting use of battery back-ups, generators, water purification, highly-trained staff, quality equipment and state of the art facilities, this hospital, with MedShare’s partnership, offers care at low or no cost to a population that can easily be called the “poorest of the poor” in a way that surpasses what even the United States’ best free clinics and public hospitals provide. Recently, MedShare shipped a container of medical aid to Hospitalito Atitlan in May 2010 that was sponsored by Mr. Bill Cuneo from Northern CA.
Once again, this visit proved that under almost unbearable circumstances, people can find creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable odds. When most give up, our Guatemalan partners innovate. When many accept social injustice, our partners fight. When few succeed, our partners excel.
Amanda, Terry and I wish to thank the many who made this expedition possible, including Dole, Kimberly-Clark, Accession Health, Food for the Poor, Knights of Malta and former MedShare board chair Bonnie O’Neill. We are also grateful for the always important advice from MedShare staff and board members who helped craft a wonderful itinerary, including Stephanie Greene, Nell Diallo, Chuck Haupt and Pat Robinson.
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